February is American Heart Month, and as we spend time picking out heart-themed cards for our loved ones, it’s also a great idea to focus on what we can do to keep our own hearts in good shape.
Unfortunately, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, so it’s important to know what you can do to reduce your risk.
Here are a few suggestions from our practitioners on some of the best foods to eat, supplements to take, and lifestyle changes to make that can make a difference for your heart.
- Know Your Numbers
Jen Eisenstein, a family nurse practitioner who specializes in children’s and women’s health at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says one of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to heart health is simply assuming they are fine. “A lot of people say, ‘I feel fine,’ but your heart health isn’t something you can feel,” she says. “You know your numbers — your blood pressure, resting heart rate, and cholesterol levels — and your family history, too.” Once you know what your numbers are, you can take steps to get them to where they need to be. She also recommends getting a smart watch, such as a Fitbit or an Apple watch, which can monitor your heartrate and other vital signs so you are better prepared in the event you have a heart attack.
- Keep Your Blood Pressure Down
When it comes to heart health, many people only think about their cholesterol, but Dr. Cheryl Schwartz, DO, an osteopathic doctor at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says it’s important to focus on controlling your blood pressure as well. “Controlling blood pressure is very important because uncontrolled hypertension can have heart damaging effects the longer it goes on untreated (or poorly controlled),” she says. “Hypertension has effects on the heart that are different from the artery-clogging effects of “bad” cholesterol.”
- Eat the Right Kinds of Fats
“Most agree that hydrogenated oils are harmful and should be avoided — read labels,” says Dr. Jerry Gore, MD, clinical director of the Center for Holistic Medicine. “There is controversy around unsaturated and saturated fats. My opinion is that one should avoid polyunsaturated fats as they form free radicals when heated and or exposed to air and thereby create oxidation and damage the food (read labels) that you eat (chips, candy bars, etc.). The greater the level of polyunsaturation, the greater the level of oxidation and inflammation. Therefore, I recommend and personally use oils that are saturated — like coconut oil, butter, clarified butter — and avoid the unsaturated oils like corn, safflower, sunflower, and canola oils. I’m careful to use olive oil (monounsaturated) in salads and cooking with low heat only.”
Patricia DeAngelis, a functional medicine nurse practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine, explains why its important to use olive oil at a low heat only. “All oils have a smoke point, or the point where the oil smokes when heated. At the smoke point, the structure of the oil changes, which changes its health effect. Oils with a high smoke point, such as avocado and coconut, are safer to heat in cooking, whereas olive oil is best served on foods at low or room temperature,” she says.
However, Dr. Schwartz does not recommend eating coconut oil at all. “Ever since the fad of using coconut oil started a few years ago, I have been finding elevated cholesterol levels (mostly LDLs) and taking people off of their coconut oil,” she says. “There is nothing coconut oil does for you that you can’t find in some other, healthier food. Instead, stick to healthier oils, such as olive oil.”
As always, please consult with your health practitioner about your specific situation.
- Eat Foods That Reduce Inflammation
One of the leading causes of heart disease is inflammation. Some people think that milk, meat, butter and eggs creat inflammation. They are high in arachidonic acid, which if you have too much of, can cause inflammation. Also, a diet high in sugar and chemicals can also cause inflammation. That’s why Dr. Gore says it’s important to stay away from too much sugar and any kind of processed food, including refined carbohydrates and processed meats, and instead eat foods such as fruit and vegetables; dark, leafy greens; nuts; and cold-water fish. Some people are sensitive to nightshades, which include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and bell peppers.
- Eat Your Veggies
Speaking of vegetables, Dr. Kelsie Lazzell, DC, DN, a naturopathic practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says getting enough vegetables in your diet is crucial for heart health, and she suggests she suggest moving to a plant hearty diet where each meal consist half of fruits and vegetables. “Make sure you are bringing in a variety of vegetables with each meal of the day — that’s at least three servings daily,” she says.
And you might even consider leaving meat for the weekends only and filling up the rest of the week on plant-based protein like beans, lentils and legumes. “Studies show a plant-based diet has some of the best long-term cardiovascular outcomes,” Lazzell says.
Lazzell also recommends two specific vegetables for their heart-healthy properties: beets and celery. “Beets and beet juice are a source of dietary nitrate, which increase nitrous oxide production, which increases blood flow in the body,” Dr. Lazzell says. “And eating three celery sticks daily has been shown to be effective for lowering your LDL and total cholesterol.”
- Get Enough Omega 3 Fatty Acids
It seems like every heart healthy recipe always includes salmon, and for good reason. “Salmon and other cold-water fish like anchovies and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids which you body needs to support healthy cholesterol formation and keep inflammation low,” Lazzell says.
In fact, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower your triglyceride levels, lower your blood pressure, reduce blood clotting, suppress heart arrhythmias and decrease sudden cardiac death.
DeAngelis, however, says you don’t need to limit your fish intake to just salmon to get a good dose of omega-3s. “SMASH is an acronym to remember when picking out fish or fish oil: salmon, mackerel, anchovy, sardine, and herring all contain good sources of omega oils,” she says. “Fish can contain mercury which is toxic to the body, so make sure that you choose smaller types fish, like SMASH, and look for words like ‘cold water’ and ‘wild-caught’ to reduce exposure to mercury.”
And if you can’t get enough fish in your diet, try taking a daily supplement of fish oil.
- Take Heart-Healthy Supplements
If you’re looking to improve your heart health through supplements, Dr. Lazzell recommends taking vitamin D3 plus K2 as well as collagen. “Vitamin D3 plus K2 is good because K2 helps bind calcium deposited in your blood vessels and redeposit it in your bones, preventing coronary artery disease,” she says. “Collagen is helpful because your blood vessels needs high amounts of collagen and protein to help repair tissue damage. Adding a scoop of high-quality collagen powder daily can help support this process.”
And if you bruise easily, Dr. Lazzell also recommends increasing your daily intake of vitamin C. “If you bruise easily, it’s because your blood vessels are more fragile and break easily under physical pressure. Vitamin C is needed for repairing damage to blood vessels, so taking vitamin C, ideally in a liposomal form, will support blood vessel strength,” she says.
- Reduce Your Stress
There is a reason people in high stress jobs tend to suffer from more heart attacks, Dr. Lazzell says. “Cortisol narrows your blood vessels and arteries while your heart rate increases. Over time, this can wear down blood vessels, which requires the body to ‘wall off the damaged area,’ however this leads to even more narrowing of the blood vessel,” she says. “If this is a blood vessel going to your heart or brain, over time you’re going to have some issues.”
That’s why finding ways to reduce your stress is so important for long-term heart health. You might try meditation, breathing techniques, finding more ways to have relax and have fun or start seeing a therapist.
“Choose one of the many stress reduction techniques that fits your personality, and work through the difficulties and challenges that you are faced with instead of suppressing them or hoping they will just disappear,” Dr. Gore says.
- Exercise 5 Days a Week
Did you know that the CDC recommends getting at least 30 minutes of exercise that’s difficult enough to make you start sweating, five days a week? If that sounds like a lot to you, you’re not alone. “I think as a country, we’re not that healthy,” Eisenstein says. “We make time for a lot of other things, but we don’t make enough time for exercise.”
Eisenstein says she prioritizes going to the gym every day after work so it becomes part of her routine, and she brings her kids along with her so they can go rock climbing or work out, too. But you don’t have to work out at the gym. Other things you could try include going for a bike ride, playing outside with your kids, lifting weights at the gym, or taking a Zumba class.
And if any of those sound too strenuous for now, Eisenstein says start by getting outside for a walk. “You don’t want to start running a marathon if you can’t even run a mile,” she says. “If you aim to start working out 30 minutes a day, the stronger your heart will get.”
- Live with Love
The heart is located in the area of the body the yogis call the heart chakra, and Dr. Gore says one of the best things you can do on a spiritual level to help your heart is to let yourself love others, and yourself, fully. “Open up your emotions and give love,” Dr. Gore says. “Help others, and also make sure to creatively fulfill your own destiny, so you can live with heart.”